GQ: Kiss the Ring

The following report originally was published in GQ's January 2007 issue.

This is back in September, nearly six weeks before the massive landslide that would upend the U.S. Congress, and Rahm Emanuel is looking grim. He's sitting in a restaurant on Capitol Hill but needs to be back on the House floor soon for a late-night vote, and so he snaps at the server to speed up his steak. He looks like he needs it. Though he swims a mile most days, the campaign has taken a visible toll on him. He's lost nearly 15 pounds since early 2005, when he started his gig as the mastermind of the Democrats' effort to take back the House of Representatives. The bags under his eyes are heavier; his salt-and-pepper hair has gone heavy on the salt. Rahm has never been known for his cheerful demeanor, but tonight the gloom is especially thick as he talks about the campaign -- how the war in Iraq has been pushed from the front pages; how George Bush has once again used the anniversary of Sept. 11 to characterize the Democrats as weaklings; how his own war with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean has been distracting; how the big donors from 2004 have "walked off the playing field;" and perhaps most frustrating, how some of his Democratic colleagues in the House are apparently resigned to permanent minority status, unable to do their part and raise the money the party desperately needs.

"I think," he finally says, with none of his usual swagger, "we have to go back to Social Security and Medicare, to turn out older voters."

Twenty-two months ago, amid the ruins of the 2004 Kerry campaign, Democrats installed Rahm -- nobody calls him Congressman Emanuel -- as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As we all now know, he did his job better than it has ever been done before. He raised more money than any previous chairman, he ruthlessly recruited handpicked candidates over the objections of local party bosses and liberal activists, and he bulldozed his colleagues over questions of strategy, regularly [expletive] off many House Democrats with his win-at-all-costs political advice. Despite the wins by traditionally liberal candidates in several districts, Rahm, with his insistence on playing to the middle, was undeniably the primary architect of the Democratic sweep.

As his steak arrives, Rahm is impressing upon me that nobody should underestimate the challenge Democrats face. Most of the competitive races are in red territory, he says, which is why he feels his critics on the left are silly and naive when they argue that the key to victory is simply for the party to turn out more of its base. He's getting agitated again, coming back to life. "There is no base!" he exclaims, and then digs into his steak.

"So how many seats do you think you're going to win?"

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